first, a discussion titled reading is not an option with walter dean myers, national ambassador for young people's literature. and director of the library of congress center for the book. this year's international summit was hosted by the library of congress and washington d.c. >> earlier this year walter dean myers was named as the third national ambassador for and people's literature this is a non-profit arm, every child a reader. the notion of the national ambassador would be someone who traveled the country on behalf of young people's literature promoting it and also expanding the audience for reading in every way that we can think of.
my proper today you already have . on the table in the back there is a bookmark which has walters photo and also a brief explanation of the national ambassador program. it lasts for two years. walter is midway through his 2-year term speaking on behalf of reading. today we're going to learn a little bit about his experience, but i would like to start by asking him how he chose his particular theme for his activity, which is reading is not optional. walter, do you want to tell us a little bit about how that came to be your team and a little bit about -- i happen to know it is his own early background that helped lead to this. >> as i began speaking to young
people and how we approach them with the reading and the book, very often i would see teachers and librarians say gm people, books are wonderful. they take you to far off places. the ship is like a frigate. in that began to ask the young people what this means. it began to say things to me like if you warrant you could have a lot of fun and books. if you want to you can enjoy and learn something from books. i -- reading is something you have to have to exist in this
world. my dad was a janitor. could not read or write and always prided himself on the fact that he could support his family. today he could not. not without reading. and al reading it affects all parts of our lives, including national security, this not spoken about very often. one of my sons is a chaplain -- was a chaplain in the air force. weapons the american said it could not use because people could not read the manual. it's just -- it's just coming more and more -- the gap is becoming more and more. the most american thing that we have, the most american thing that we have in this country is the ability for those glasses to
wrap themselves, to make themselves whole and to prosper without reading this is impossible. this is why. my own background is, i was raised in a foster family. my mom read. i guess on a third grade level. four days a week, a romance magazine. [laughter] and i didn't -- i didn't understand it was a true american magazine. and did not learn until my 30's. but i wasn't attracted to the stories so much that i was attracted to being with mom, with my foster mom.
and that would watch her finger roll across the page and eventually because the reading level of romance was fairly low, i could pick up words. and by the time i reached the age of 5i could read to her as she ironed and then she worked. and that was -- i never knew she was giving me something. i never knew she was transmitting a skilled, but today i know it. >> and you went on to school for a few years. and you were in school until wind? what age? >> i was in school until i was 15. that did fairly well in school until i was 14. fourteen to my family began stood disintegrate. my uncle was murdered. my father to depression, my mom
became an alcoholic. and so i was thrown away. so completely fill my mind that my grades plummeted. i had bucks. the new york public library, thank god for the new york public library. i had books. so when i had the difficulties of my mom, i found my emotional voice and portrait of the artist of the and and, his mother asked him to pray with her. he refused. and that tension. and i had the idea of sometimes being fearful. i had steven crane. books gave me a voice that expressed my individual humanity
. and those books then helped turn you into a writer. do you want to talk for a moment of the have you got into writing? >> i began writing. i have speech difficulties as well. my siblings all have speech difficulties. we came up from west virginia. and i could not speak very well or read very well allowed, but eventually the teacher said, okay, you can write something, copied down. if you laugh at me and will, books and you. hit you. depending how far you were. but she said, i could read something. began writing in the palms. i really enjoy that. that was the only thing i was praised for that age. and i enjoyed writing. i dropped the school of 15.
went back into school, a job as 16 and joined the army. >> and you have before you one of the most prolific writers of literature for yen people, authors risen over 100 books. he is known throughout the country in the world for his concern about youth which is reflected in most of what we would call his young adult fiction which has a focus based on his experience being born in harlem and being a new jersey boy basically. and this is a career that is remarkable and is one that is now being shared through his travels around the country kind of like to ask you to talk a little bit about what is happening, what has happened during your first year of touring. the only conditions really for a
national ambassador would be the selection by the jury which consists of experts in children's and in people's literature which we host at the children's book council with myself and the number of experts, including robert addison, who is the chair. and that we ask the person that we choose, known not only for his or her books, but for their ability to relate to kids basically. turned out to be a key thing. and the little obligation reminds me a little bit, the minor obligations for the poet consultants, poetry, the poet laureate for the library of congress. they need to appear at the library of congress. they have a couple of other minimal obligations, and then it is up to them. for walter and our two previous ambassadors, john chester and
katherine paterson, they have not only had open children's book week in new york but, of course, come to our national book festival, so we get a guarantee of a top-notch writer to the subjugation. but walter in particular shows a theme, reading is not optional. and we were able to send him during his first year through around the country. at the que visited some new places. louisiana tech book festival which was sponsored by the louisiana center for the book. and i would like you to, perhaps point to a couple of these wonderful experiences that i know you had come not only in places like festivals, but your concern about visiting detention centers and talking to young people in detention centers. >> one of the other qualifications you did not
mention is that you have to be very handsome. [laughter] >> distinguished and at least 6 feet four. right. >> i am particularly interested. i wanted to know the reading levels, what they read, what was going on with their venture with books. and for me, i have been in this gamelan time. i have been writing years and years and years. i have seen prisoners that i first saw in grade school and second grade and third grade. you see them 15 years later in maximum-security prisons. to me that is absolute shocking.
it is the truth, and i find it some young people who come to reading for the first time in prison because they don't have the community putting them down. some would be carved up from family anxieties. it discover books. you can send them books. we have got through many of the organizations that i work with, can accept hard-cover books, softcover. ripping off our cover on the books. it's very difficult, but many of the prisoners tommy, especially the male prisoners